The 2008 season will in all likelihood be a turning point in the Auburn men's basketball program. It could be that this fifth year of Jeff Lebo's tenure at Auburn is the one that marks the turnaround of Auburn basketball. Or it could be another year of disappointments that leave fans thinking about what could have been.
Many fans on the plains suggest that an NCAA Tournament appearance is necessary to keep his job, but if you look at the roster, I believe any postseason appearance would be satisfactory. By no means do I like the NIT, but that might be the most realistic goal to shoot for.
There are six returning players who have played significant minutes for the Tigers in the past, and five of them appear to be in line for the starting lineup, although some newcomers might push for some of the starting jobs. Let's take a look at these six veterans:
Larry Williams Jr.
A 6'2 Junior who walked on and made the team a year ago, Williams played significant minutes last year because of the injuries and suspensions that plagued the team. Although he probably will not start this year, his experience will make him valuable early in the year as a substitute while the new players are getting acclimated to big-time college basketball.
Reed has enjoyed mixed success on the Plains. His speedy 6'1, 175 pound frame allowed him to start at point guard for part of his true freshman season in 2006. His 2007 season was plagued with turnover problems and a lack of outside shooting. He will enter training camp as a junior with a starting spot, but might not leave with it, depending on some talented newcomers.
Robertson has been starting for the Tigers since he arrived on campus. A native of Cincinnati, he brings a terrific turnover to assist ratio to the team. The senior's natural position is the point guard, but has played the 2 and even the 3 to get the best Tigers on the floor. If Reed exits the starting lineup, expect "Tez" to run the show at point guard this year.
An overnight fan favorite in 2007, Lucas Hargrove provided a much needed spark to the Tigers last year. A 6'6 Junior from Pontiac, South Carolina, Hargrove made his debut to the starting lineup against Alabama and put up 28 points to lead the Tigers to one of only two home SEC wins. He is expected to start this year at the small forward position.
Rasheem Barrett has also been a mainstay in the Tigers lineup since arriving on campus from Atlanta, Georgia. He is a streaky shooter who can light it up when his shooting is on. His real strength is a strong mid-range jumper and his ability to drive to the bucket. He started every game of his junior last year and averaged a solid 13.6 points per game.
"Vot" Barber is the most interesting story of all the returning veterans. Through nine games in 2007, he was leading the country in field goal percentage and leading the team in scoring. Then against Towson, he broke a bone in his foot, ending his season. He played 6 minutes over the maximum amount to gain a redshirt (although Auburn is in the process of appealing that rule).
As of now, he is a 6'8, 225 lb senior from Manchester, Georgia and the only experienced post presence the Tigers have. A former McDonald's All-American, Barber's health and quality of play will be pivotal if the Tigers are to have any measure of success this season.
Jeff Lebo clearly needed a quality recruiting class this year with three of these five veterans graduating this year. He appears to have come through with one of the better classes in recent memory. Only time will tell how important and productive this class is, but it appears to have kept the program afloat and provides hope for the future. Here are some of the big names:
Sullivan is probably the most well-known of this group of newcomers. He led his high school R.C. Hatch to multiple state 2A titles and came up just short of in the voting of Alabama's most recent "Mr. Basketball." At 6'1 and 175 pounds, he most fits as a back-up point guard or shooting guard on this team. Although there is the possibility of him having a great camp and stealing a starting spot from one of the veterans.
Waller is a junior college transfer who will have two years of eligibility at Auburn. He is the purest shooter in this recruiting class. In junior college, he was known for his very high percentages from behind the arc and from the free throw line. Waller has a chance to edge out Dewayne Reed at one of the guard positions.
Lett is a 6'8, 235 pound junior college transfer from Mobile, Alabama. He will provide depth in the post behind Korvotney Barber. He, like Waller, has two years of eligibility remaining.
Knox is a 6'10, 220 pound junior college transfer from Spartanburg Methodist College in Georgetown, South Carolina. Knox will also have two years of eligibility and will help add depth to the frontline. He will be competing with Lett and Aihe for immediate playing time.
Francis is a 6'9 215 pound junior college transfer with two years of eligibility. He is from Winter Park, Florida and will be fighting with Knox and Lett for playing time in the post behind Vot Barber.
Neysmith is a transfer from the Oklahoma Sooners. Due to NCAA transfer rules, he will have to sit out this year but will have three years of eligibility beginning in the 2009-2010 season. He was a hyped recruit entering Oklahoma's program but didn't get the playing time or production he desired. He is a tall lean guard at 6'5 and only 195 pounds, but has great ball handling skills and an adequate outside shot.
McGee transferred from Indiana as Tom Crean takes over and tries to clean that program up after the mess Kelvin Sampson created. McGee is another post player that will have three years of eligibility after his transfer year this year. He averaged a double-double in high school and was considered by some one of the top 30 recruits in America before his freshman year at IU. He figures to be a big-time player once he gains his eligibility.
One of the biggest disappointments of the offseason was the permanent suspension of forward Josh Dollard. The Auburn athletics department has been very vague as to the nature of the reasons why he was kicked off. His troubles began last year where he took a "medical redshirt" but was at all the games and looked healthy and in good shape.
Dollard was Auburn's leading scorer in the 2006-2007 season and was poised to return this year with fellow forward Vot Barber, but that will not be the case. The losses of seniors Quan Prowell and Frank Tolbert will also hurt the Tigers this year.
The official schedule hasn't been released yet, but through quotes from Jeff Lebo, we can assume Tulane, Xavier, George Washington, Dayton, Northern Iowa, and Missouri State will be on the non-conference slate.
While none of these games feature incredible teams, they will be solid tests of what this team is made of early in the year. The SEC schedule consists of playing each Western Division team once at home and once on the road, and playing each Eastern Division team once either at home or on the road.
The number that always sticks out for me as a goal is an 8-8 SEC record. Assuming Auburn can do decently in the nonconference schedule (9-4, 10-4, 10-3, something like that) an 8-8 conference record would put them in the 18-12 range overall.
A record like that in a power conference like the SEC should be enough to get them into some sort of postseason tournament. Whether this team can accomplish that goal will be sorted out in a few months when the new season begins.